In Sweden, what will I find?

Swedish farm

Will I find them? I have photos, but no addresses, of the two Swedish farms where my grandmother lived at the turn of the century. My mormor, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, etc.

 

I am in Sweden for the first time, exploring Stockholm with a friend, preparing for a journey west to research family ancestry with my son.

I’d like to find at least one, if not both, of the farms near Falkenberg and the North Sea where my grandmother (mormor) lived. I have photos, but no addresses.

I’d like to find out more about my mysterious grandfather (morfar), who was said to have been orphaned in a flu epidemic and who sailed for America a few days behind the Titanic, having missed that ill-fated ship because of a rail strike in England.

For the most part, seeing extended Swedish family will have to wait until another trip to Sweden, although we do have plans to meet up with a distant cousin. Many years ago when I was living in New York City, two Swedish cousins came to sightsee and I had a great time showing them around. They have both since passed away. My aunts visited Sweden a few decades ago and saw many cousins, but there is a new generation now whose addresses I don’t have.

We’ll see what I find this time around.

 

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Morfar and Mormor: Ivar Emmanuel Håkansson and Hulda Viktoria Johansson

 

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My maternal great grandparents – stora farföräldrar – on their 50th wedding anniversary

 

DoctorGlas

“How is it to be done? I have known a long while now. Chance has so arranged matters that the solution is as good as given: my potassium cyanide pills which I once made up without a thought to anyone but myself, must be brought into service.”  Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg

I brought with me the classic Swedish novel Doctor Glas, a brooding, psychological period piece that foreshadows modern-day themes of euthanasia and abortion. Margaret Atwood wrote the foreword to the paperback edition I have.

It has been intriguing to find turn-of-the-century landmarks, such as restaurants and museums, mentioned in the novel as we pass by them sightseeing around Stockholm.

And there is the unusual, early morning light of the 4 am Swedish spring sunrise – Atwood mentions eerie evening light below.

“Doctor Glass is deeply unsettling, in the way certain dreams are – or, no coincidence, certain films by Bergman….the eerie blue northern nights of midsummer combined with an unexplained anxiety, the nameless Kirkegaardean dread that strikes Glas at the most ordinary of moments….It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since.”   – Margaret Atwood

 

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A city garden allotment in Eriksdalslunden, Stockholm on the Årstaviken inlet/canal. Imagine living in a beautiful, spacious pre-war apartment in Stockholm and having your very own garden hideaway several city blocks away. You can be placed on a waiting list for one of these coveted allotments, but you will wait 30 years!

 

In Stockholm, I found my way to a city park, which gave way to an enchanting neighborhood of garden allotments along the water, with a public, tree-lined hiking path. I saw the following passage in Swedish on a plaque. I used Google Translate to decipher it. Because that tool is imperfect, I took liberties and edited the passage, so it’s not a literal translation:

“From the cottages on the slopes above the Eriksdalslunden, with its aspen and small flowering gardens, look down to the water and the dark wilderness of coniferous forests across thew way; it’s as if you’ve been transported to Sweden’s Norrland (Northland). – Architect Osvald Almqvist, 1930s

 

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This garden allotment (kolonilottor) reminds me of a Carl Larsson painting.

 

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Allotment spring flowers (blommor)

 

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Parked along the Eriksdaslunden path

 

Birdsong and flowers in Eriksdaslunden:

 

 

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View from my airbnb in Skanstull, Stockholm, on Sunday morning, 6 am.

 

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The quaint old elevator in our airbnb. Or I can walk two floors up on a winding staircase.

 

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Good, strong Swedish coffee in a konditori, with cardamom and cinnamon buns, budapests, and princesses (these are the names of various desserts).  No such thing as decaf here.

 

GreatEnigma

I’ve been carrying around (and not so much reading) the poetry of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Here, his poem about espresso:

The black coffee they serve outdoors/among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.

Precious distillations/filled with the same strength as Yes and No.

It’s carried out from the gloomy kitchen/and looks into the sun without blinking.

In the daylight a dot of beneficent black/that quickly flows into a pale customer.

It’s like the drops of black profoundness/sometimes gathered up by the soul,

giving a salutary push: Go!/Inspiration to open your eyes.

 

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Tomas Tranströmer 1931 – 2015. His grave is in the Katarina Church cemetery in Stockholm. Many prominent Swedes are buried there, including actor Michael Nyqvist of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame.

 

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Katarina Church, Stockholm

 

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Stockholm light at 4 am.

 

 

Inheritance

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“Now the details are so clear to me, as if contained in a time capsule: the Hudson River in the darkness; the lights strung across the George Washington Bridge; the even timbre of my mother’s voice; the high plane of her cheekbone. Her long-fingered hands clasped in her lap. Institute. World-famous. Philadelphia.” Inheritance, Dani Shapiro

A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Over the next month or two, I’ll be looking at memoir through the lens of inheritance – genetic, ancestral, cultural, and otherwise. This, as I send off my DNA to be analyzed and journey to my two ancestral homes: Sweden, for the first time; and Sicily, where we’ve traveled as a family on several occasions while raising our sons.

I’m not sure what I’ll find in Sweden – more about that in upcoming posts. As for Sicily, I look forward to seeing my extended family again and their stunningly beautiful landscape, their small city on the sea which has been their ancestral home for centuries, and their warm, embracing culture.

I wanted to begin with Dani Shapiro’s jaw-dropping Inheritance because it is a “big,” important memoir, masterfully executed by a seasoned memoirist and novelist, about an increasingly common situation: more people are having their DNA analyzed, and some are getting huge surprises. Others are having long-held suspicions about maternity or paternity confirmed.

In Dani’s case, she learned that her father, whom she adored, was not her biological father. Which meant that her half sister was not her sister. Her beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were not her blood relations, either. Their rich, storied Jewish history and culture were not hers. (Or were they? Do true blood ties matter? Or can nurture make up the difference? Dani explores this.)

Some of Dani’s memories are especially resonant and ironic in hindsight:

At a writer’s retreat, when she was young, aspiring, and still unknown, a famous poet, observing her fair-skinned features, commented: “There’s no way you are Jewish. No way.”

At a backyard barbecue in their close-knit, Jewish neighborhood, a friend and Holocaust survivor said to a baffled, eight-year-old Dani: ““We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”

After a photographic portrait session, three-year-old Dani was selected by Kodak for the Grand Central Station Colorama photo: the iconic, blonde, All-American (non-Jewish) child in front of the Christmas tree waiting eagerly for Santa.

But I found the following memory most haunting of all: it speaks of Dani’s staggering loneliness and bewilderment as an only child who had always had an innate, deeply felt sense she didn’t belong in her own family. Years after it happened, a neighbor recalled how one day Dani ran across the street to her house, frightened and crying. A home security alarm had gone off, and Dani’s babysitter had been apparently indifferent or unconcerned. The neighbor said she later called Dani’s mother, fed up with Dani’s endless string of babysitters and what she saw as parental neglect. I should say here that Dani had a challenging, contentious relationship with her mother who was, to say the least, a difficult woman.

Inheritance is an important memoir for many reasons; among other things, it raises moral and ethical questions that we, as a society, need to confront. I’ve written before about Jaron Lanier’s call for a more humanitarian focus as our culture becomes shaped and influenced in unforeseen ways by advances in technology. As genetic identities become easily obtainable, we’d do well to ask:

At what point does the quest to have children, at all costs, become morally questionable?  (There is something deeply ironic about the profession chosen by Dani’s biological father, whose identity she goes on to discover.)

Is it not the basic human right of every individual to know his or her genetic identity? Is it ever right for that genetic identity to be legally or otherwise withheld?

Dani comes to think of her discovery as a form of trauma:

“Later, I will become a student of trauma. I will read deeply on the subject as a way of understanding the two opposite poles of my own history: the trauma my parents must have experienced in order to have made a decision so painful that it was buried at the moment it was made, and the trauma of my discovery of that decision more than half a century later.

It is the nature of trauma that, when left untreated, it deepens over time. I had experienced trauma over the years and had developed ways of dealing with it. I meditated each morning. I had a decades-long yoga practice. I had suffered other traumas – my parents’ car accident, Jacob’s childhood illness – and had come out the other side, eventually. What I didn’t understand was that as terrible as these were, they were singular incidents….

But this – the discovery that I wasn’t who I had believed myself to be all my life, that my parents had on some level, no matter how subtle, made the choice to keep the truth of my identity from me – this was no singular incident. It wasn’t something outside myself, to be held to the light and examined, and finally understood. It was inseparable from myself. It was myself.

Their trauma became mine – had always been mine. It was my inheritance, my lot.”

Dani Shapiro now has a podcast series, “Family Secrets.”

Memoir, as a genre, is coming into its own, partly because we are finally realizing how silence and secrets can deepen trauma, with impacts on individuals, families, communities, and our larger culture.

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:

  • The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold. There is something uniquely American and West Coast about this hilarious and deeply honest memoir by a fabulous writer. I’ll be looking at her familial and cultural “inheritance.”
  • My personal stake in memoir, my own writing of memoir, and what aspects of inheritance I’ll be searching for when I travel to Europe.

 

Villa window

Coming up: What I’ll be searching for in Sweden and Sicily

 

Sea, beach, sky

Not far from my Sicilian ancestral home

TransAtlantic inspires a look at our family history

Back from an Oregon vacation and an unforgettable family reunion in Cannon Beach.

Several books traveled with me, of course, including Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, which we’d chosen for our family reunion book club, and Natalie Goldberg’s newest title, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. I tore through Goldberg’s book, as anyone who is a Goldberg fan will understand, while I mulled over how to frame our TransAtlantic book club discussion.

I didn’t expect to find this serendipitous connection between the two books on page 3 of The True Secret:

The True Secret of Writing book cover“Writing is for everyone, like eating and sleeping….Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write. Slave owners were afraid to think of these people as human. To read and to write is to be empowered. No shackle can ultimately hold you.

To write is to continue the human lineage. For my grandfather, coming from Russia at seventeen, it was enough to learn the language. Today, it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream. To write, to pass on the dream and tell its truth. Get to work. Nothing fancy. Begin with the ordinary.”

Transatlantic book coverReading Goldberg’s words – get to work, nothing fancy, begin with the ordinary – I thought of Colum McCann’s writing, and of Lily Duggan, the fictitious Irish housemaid in TransAtlantic who could not read or write and came penniless to America, whose daughter became an influential journalist and wrote about the first non-stop transatlantic flight, by Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Ireland (see this photo of their landing.)

Reading Goldberg’s words – no shackles can ultimately hold you –  I thought of the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and what he was able to accomplish thanks to his education.

Reading Goldberg’s words – it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream –  I decided to ask my husband’s family if they identified with their Irish ancestry. Do they ever think about it, do they find it relevant to their lives, or do they see themselves as thoroughly American? If it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream (whether we consider ourselves writers or not), what does that mean and how do we do that?

One branch of my husband’s family came from Drummin Parish, Westport in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. They immigrated to America after the English Earl of Aran evicted them and 40 other families from the land where they were tenant farmers. Nearly the entire town came to America, including their local priest, shortly after the Civil War. (Again, I think of TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan and her deep and involuntary involvement in the Civil War.) They settled in Little Falls, New York, where they may have worked on the enlargement of the Erie Canal. Several of the brothers started a construction and masonry company and built the Beechnut Plant in Canajoharie, locks in the Mohawk River, and many buildings in the Mohawk Valley.

In our discussion, my father-in-law said he thought of himself as American, while his sister identified strongly with her Irish Catholic heritage. I wondered why there was such a difference in the same family. My sister-in-law thought it might be that it had been the man’s responsibility to be successful and earn a good living; to do that he had to shed his ethnicity in the workplace and become “American.” The woman had stayed home, preserving family rituals and traditions, passing on family history, perhaps assimilating more slowly.

Someone said she thought it unusual TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan was not religious and not raised Catholic, and that led to a discussion of Catholic identity. My mother-in-law, like my husband’s aunt, strongly identified as Irish Catholic, and said when she was growing up being Catholic was more important than being Irish. She told the story of an uncle who wept bitterly when one of his children married a Protestant. Someone else commented that in the New Jersey town where he grew up, there was an Italian Catholic church, an Irish Catholic church, and a Polish Catholic church.

I wanted to know which TransAtlantic characters made the deepest impression. My father-in-law was especially taken with the brilliance, dedication, and integrity of  Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace talks in Northern Ireland. He did some research and found a fascinating interview with Mitchell after he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Almost all of us loved Lily, of course. Some of us didn’t know anything about Frederick Douglass and his connection with Ireland, and we’d never heard of Alcock and Brown or their amazing flight.

There were at least four generations at our family reunion. I’m so glad some of us shared the reading of TransAtlantic. I, for one, could have kept our discussion going longer than we had time for.

I don’t think we answered the question of how to further the immigrant dream or whether that is something we’ll even think about, and I don’t know how strongly the younger generation will identify with their Irish heritage. But I do find it fascinating how McCann weaves fiction and nonfiction together to form a narrative arc that extends through time and across generations. It’s much larger than any single life, and yet every individual has a role to play.

I think I see similar through-lines across time in my husband’s family, whether they’re passed down through familial and social influences, or encoded in their DNA, or both: a mechanical and engineering aptitude, keen intelligence, a predilection for risk-taking, an independent spirit, a deep curiosity about the world, and a strong sense of justice. When all of us get together for these reunions that are way too brief, you can see these commonalities.

Have you ever had a book club at your family reunion? If so, what did you read? Tell us about it in the comments.

If you would like to learn more about Natalie Goldberg, her new book, and the true secret of writing (I’m not going to spill the beans), listen to this wonderful 30-minute podcast on Natalie’s website.

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach

Haystack, Cannon Beach

Cannon Beach and bonfires

Evening bonfires

They have started to harvest rye, so I am sitting here alone, writing

The tiny farm near Falkenberg, Sweden where the Johansson family lived at the turn of the century. Here my grandmother, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, etc.

The tiny farm near Falkenberg, Sweden where the Johansson family lived at the turn of the century before they moved to a larger one. Here my grandmother, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, and other chores.

 

The Forest House

I just finished reading The Forest House, Joelle Fraser’s memoir about divorce and living alone in a remote village in northern California’s Diamond Mountains.

Like me, Joelle is of Swedish descent. She writes of her great-grandmother, Emma, who had to leave her six daughters with foster families and neighbors in Sweden when she emigrated to America in 1919 after a family tragedy. Emma saved the money to send for her children and was eventually reunited with five of them.

Joelle has a hard time after her divorce, especially living only part-time with her young son, and scraping by on a tiny income. She wonders what her great-grandmother might teach her about weathering nearly unbearable troubles. Joelle wants to tap in to “the knowledge of our ancestors that still exists within us…It’s the instinctive way we respond to a sudden change in fortune, or to the many variations of loss.”

She quotes Wendell Berry, who writes of “the profound and mysterious knowledge that is inherited, handed down in memories and names and gestures and feelings, and in tones and inflections of voice.”

This reminds me of Lone Frank’s book, My Beautiful Genome, and her fascination with the genetic “coding” we inherit from our ancestors.

We’re getting ready for an extended family reunion, so I’ve been thinking about ancestry as I look forward to seeing several generations of my husband’s family. To celebrate and explore their Irish heritage, we’re going to be reading Colum McCann’s new novel, Transatlantic. More about that in my next post.

Family letters from Sweden

In the meantime, here are excerpts from letters sent to my grandmother from Sweden. Recently, my cousin and I had a few of them translated.

Dikesgård

July 31, 1938

Dear Hulda and Family,

I would like to tell you all that Dad is gone from us forever. I have a heavy heart and am tired…his heart was in poor shape, so he died of a heart attack. He went so fast. We should all be prepared every hour that the Lord may wish to call us from here.

Dad was so good; we hope he is resting in the arms of the Savior. He went with me both to the Church and partook of the Communion. We hope that the good Lord’s mercy is so encompassing that he will accept all of us as his children.

We have our health. They have started to harvest rye so I am sitting here alone, writing….

Warm greetings from all of us to all of you from,

Your Mom

***

Skrea, February 19, 1969

Dear Sister Hulda,

Oskar is so well now that he could leave [the hospital] and he is riding around on his bicycle during the day. He is well off since he has a pension of more than 500 Crowns a month and has electric light and heating; the temperature is always 20 degrees C inside since heating is automatic…..

Annie is quick as she has always been. I…remember when she was going to school in Bölse and had a blue velvet cap which I thought was so beautiful. Hulda, maybe you also had that velvet hat…..

The kindest regards,

Jennie

***

Stockholm, November 5, 1971

Dear Sister Hulda,

We sisters are wondering how you are doing following Ivar’s death…..

Considering the circumstances, Oskar is doing pretty well; you may know that his left leg was amputated last spring; he had a gangrene in it, so that was the only solution. He walks, takes strolls with the help of two goats…

You will probably celebrate Christmas at one of your children’s. We shall be with Inez, Bengt, and their four children on Christmas Eve. Gunilla, Lars and little Karin live in Luleå, but they are coming here during the Christmas holiday…

Regards,

Signa and Carl

***

Dikesgård, December 1

Thank you for the letter and the Christmas greetings. How are you there so far away? Everyone asks Oskar if you are well and hale.

Here in Sweden it is raining only and the wind is blowing, but perhaps by Christmas it will be crisper….

I have my one leg, so I got an artificial one so I can walk a bit and I can drive a small car. I can no longer bike, it is hard, one has to do what one can. Soon it will be Christmas again; time goes by so quickly. I go home and sit in [illegible] to pass the time. I can read whatever I can put my hands on and pass the time.

With kind greetings and wishing you merry Christmas.

Oskar

MEMOIRS WITH ANCESTRY MOTIFS

The Forest House, by Joelle Fraser

My Beautiful Genome, by Lone Frank

Ava’s Man, by Rick Bragg

The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father, by Mary Gordon

If you can add to this list, please do so in the comments. And if you’ve read one of these books, let us know what you think about it.

Genetic kinship: Who are we and where do we come from?

In My Beautiful Genome, Lone Frank probes her past by having her DNA analyzed for genetic kinship.

State-of-the-art genetic testing can trace ancestry ten or eleven generations back, by looking at a man’s Y-chromosome DNA (which he inherits unchanged from his father) or the mitochondrial-DNA of a man or a women (which they inherit unchanged from their mother.)

Many people interested in genealogy are now supplementing their research with DNA testing of this kind.

Piazza in Carini, Sicily

Piazza in my father’s hometown, Carini, Sicily

As I read about Lone tracing her ancestry, I thought about trips to my father’s birthplace in Sicily I’ve taken with my family. My father was a baby when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean with my grandmother to Ellis Island. I heard the story many times growing up. My grandparents kept in touch with their relatives and returned to Sicily several times to visit.

Because they did, I’ve been able to travel to Carini to meet my father’s family, and my sons have had the opportunity to get to know their Sicilian cousins. That connection with the “old country” is continuing into the next generation, and I hope my children will keep it going with their children.

On our first trip, when we were exploring the cobblestone streets of Carini, we stopped in a bakery. There, we met a man who had my last name (my maiden name.) My family’s surname name is common in Carini.

That day our cousins took us to a nearby castle that had been built around 1075. In the evening we gathered for an elaborate, home-cooked meal at my father’s cousin’s villa in the old section of Carini. Like most Sicilian homes, it is walled off and gated. We sat at several picnic tables end-to-end next to a large, well-tended garden and talked late into the night.

I was steeped in antiquity but surrounded by modernity. Vespas and other traffic passed by outside the garden walls.  I felt a sense of completion. Here were my roots, or half of them, anyway. I looked at the faces of my family and thought about the fact that Sicily has been conquered repeatedly, by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Spanish, and probably others. We have the blood of many races, and who knows what parts of the world our earliest ancestors came from.

I think people are looking for this sense of identity when they do genealogical research and probe their DNA for ancestry. We are, each of us, unique. Yet when it comes down to it, we all come from the same human family.

Have you had your DNA analyzed for ancestry? Are you considering it? If so and you’d like to share your thoughts and experiences, please do in the comments below.

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